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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Baby Driver

Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is not just the best all-out action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road, it's a reminder of what summer blockbusters used to be before superheroes largely took over.  Fast-paced, plenty of kinetic stunts, a few breathless chase and action scenes, some laughs, a romantic angle, and a soundtrack that would become just as famous as the movie itself.  This movie is all of the above and more.  If the Fast and Furious movies were half this good, I'd be counting down the days to the next installment.

The titular Baby (played by Ansel Elgort in a career-topping performance) is a getaway driver for an Atlanta crime syndicate who doesn't talk much, but listens quite well, and usually records the conversations of the people around him.  Not for any nefarious purpose or for reasons of payback, mind you.  Simply because he likes to record things people say with an old fashioned mini tape recorder, and remix them to music he composes.  Music is what drives Baby's entire life.  After a car accident as a kid left him with tinnitus, which causes a constant ringing sound in his ears, he spends most of his time with earbuds on to drown it out, listening to a wide variety of classic music of a wide variety of genres and decades that act as a score to the entire film itself.  Much has been made of how Wright picked out the music before he wrote the screenplay, and how a majority of the action has been choreographed to it.  This is no more apparent than in the showstopping opening sequence, where a brazen bank robbery and getaway chase is scored to "Bellbottoms" by the The John Spencer Blues Explosion.  Baby is the best getaway driver in the criminal underworld, but he needs music to work, and everything has to be precise to the music.  When a heist is delayed at one point, he starts the music over from the beginning, so that he won't be out of sync.

Baby works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), who plans and arranges the robberies.  In all fairness, he's working to pay off a debt that he owes to the criminal.  Were it not for a mistake Baby made at one point, he wouldn't even be where he is.  Doc's process is to hire three criminals, and then have Baby drive them to the place that needs to be hit, and then make the escape once the job is done.  As the film opens, Baby has just one more job to pull off for Doc before he gets out, and can live his own life again.  This being a crime caper film, it's naturally not that easy.  He's pulled back in just when he strikes up a relationship with the pretty young diner waitress Debora (Lily James).  They dream of hitting the road together and finding their place in the world, but naturally, Baby's past catches up with him, and he's talked into doing "just one more job".  Where things go from here, I will leave you to discover.  While this is not exactly a surprising movie, it's so kinetic, alive, exciting and funny, revealing more of the plot would seem like a disservice.

Baby Driver is the one of the very few times when music video-style editing and rhythm has been pulled off successfully in a feature film.  Every sound is perfectly timed with the music on the soundtrack, from the screeching of tires on the pavement, to the gunshots, right down to the sound of bundles of money being dropped on a desk.  This might lead you to think that the film is a gimmick, or perhaps an empty spectacle, but Wright allows us not just to be mesmerized by the choreography, but also drawn in by the characters and their individual quirks and relationships.  This is a high-concept film with heart to go along with the boundless style.  And it's not just the near-continuous soundtrack that adds to the experience.  The filmmaking (including a few select black and white sequences), and the way many of the stunts are performed with practical effects rather than glaring CG add to the excitement.  When the cars slam into each other here, the audience feels it, because it looks authentic rather than staged.  We know that everything up on the screen has been calculated right down to the smallest detail, but it never feels that way, because we are drawn into these people who inhabit the story.

And yes, these are fascinating characters, played by actors who have been perfectly cast.  From the mute old man who lives in Baby's rundown apartment, to the criminals who work alongside him during the heists (who are played by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez), these are people who grab us.  This movie may be an action spectacle, but it's not hollow in the slightest.  We also get drawn into the love story between Baby and Debora, because the actors show such wonderful romantic and at times comedic chemistry together.  When Baby is dancing for joy to music over the idea of being in love for the first time, it's not just a sweet moment, but a moment of true jubilation that actually took me by surprise.  In a strange way, it ranks as one of the most romantic musical moments since La La Land.  The music here doesn't just stage the action, but also just about every emotion, making it perhaps the first action movie musical.

Even if the summer hadn't up to this point been filled largely with disappointing clunkers, Baby Driver would probably still rank as one of the high points of just about any summer movie season.  If I were a better man, I would be personally leading anyone who buys a ticket to the new Transformers to a theater showing this movie, so they could see what a genuine action movie looks like.  This is simply one of those small cinematic miracles where everything just works.

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